American dream as Dante's Hell: a sardonic comedy about death

Breaking Bad, 2008-2013 (five seasons)

By Peter Hulm

American utopia, in the eyes of French cultural critic Jean Baudrillard, was only a few degrees away from nightmare.

Breaking Bad* brings that aperçu to life. Dante's Hell is only a couple of steps away from the American dream.

This series may be The Sopranos of the 21st century. Even better, for its concern with human values, it may also be the Dante's Inferno of our time. In 2013 it entered the Guinness Book of Records as the highest-rated show of all time.

The 62-episode series was original enough from the beginning to confuse one viewer (me) expecting something more conventional.

It took a second viewing to appreciate the originality of a series that started with a man in his underpants wearing goggles at the wheel of a mobile home racing across the desert and then blundering out of the vehicle to record a video goodbye message to his wife and wave a gun in the direction he just came from as police sirens wail closer and closer.

The first episode gave us the answer to that beginning with a flashback after the titles. I'm usually allergic to flashbacks (they feel like confidence tricks) but here it worked.

The American damned

Written out plainly, the explanation we saw stands as a damning picture of U.S. society today: an underpaid high-school chemistry teacher in New Mexico (Bryan Cranston), working as a car cleaner to pay the bills, enters middle-age to discover he has terminal lung cancer. Talked into taking treatment, he finds himself in tremendous debt. The only way out he sees is to turn his chemistry skills into brewing methamphetimine for the drug trade.

Fortunately (ha!) he meets a former pupil who can help him 'cook' and sell the tablets. Unfortunately, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) is a major user and complete fuck-up in his early 20s.

Pinkman can only get the stricken Walter White into trouble, and proceeds to do so.

Meanwhile, Walter's family — his difficult wife, his grumpy son, passive aggressive sister-in-law and her crude husband, an active officer of the Drug Enforcement Agency — take him through death and purgatory U.S. style: the promise of a miserable life followed by penury for a wife and son who depend on his providing for them.

The law of unintended consequences

In the hands of Vince Gilligan, a veteran of X-files, this becomes sardonic comedy. Every step this Master and Apprentice take, virtually every step everyone in this series takes, has unexpected consequences. Breaking Bad, for much of the time, was almost exemplary in demonstrating the Kantian dilemma of whether to judge actions by their results or their intentions, since the actions almost always had disastrous unintended results.

Gilligan has spoken of taking his inspiration for Breaking Bad from talking on the phone with Thomas Schnauz, who later became a regular writer for the series, during a lean period they were both enduring after X-files.

Maybe the answer was to put a "meth lab in the back of an RV and [drive] around the country cooking meth and making money," Gilligan remembers Schnauz as saying. Breaking Bad shows why this would not have been a good choice.

In Gilligan's words, Mr Chips turns into Scarface. Pinkman's brash youthful cynicism turns into misanthropic disgust, and integrity becomes a desperate act to avoid going under.

Working things out

Gilligan has a good ear for the banal lines we utter under pressure. My favourite from series one: "Things have a way of working themselves out" (Cancer Man, episode 4).

Of course, in Breaking Bad things don't. The protaganist (Bryan Cranston), when diagnosed with lung cancer, is immediately recited a list of side effects that grows more horrendous as he hears each item — in a perfectly judged performance by David House as the doctor.

As we later see, the characters just slip from one circle of Hell to the next.

Slyly, in an early episode of the first series, Gilligan gives us a story within the story of an obnoxious man with a bluetooth earpiece whose wealth and indifference to all around focuses Walter's anger about the lousy deal life has given him. By the time the man gets his comeuppance at Walter's hands, we are egging on the frustrated chemist in vandalism.

A Dickensian cast list

What gave Breaking Bad its energy was the sheer invention of new characters whose reptilian appeal would have made them stars of any other series. The usual adjective for such fertility of invention is Dickensian, but the chilling realism is more reminiscent of Thackeray in his most cynical mood.

Betsy Brandt's Marie Schrader was a courageous and underrated depiction of self-centered depression masked as familial concern, but Mark Margolis offered us sheer malevolence as the wheelchair-bound uncle of psychopathic drug lord Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz).

Dean Norris as Marie's husband may have begun the series as a comic turn but he became a more and more substantial figure, and by the end was moving and admirable, without changing his essential character: a tour de force that, shamefully, was not acknowledged by the prizegivers of the TV world.

R.J. Mitte portrayed another character who could have been explored more fully. The chronically morose son with cerebral palsy, the teenager demands to be called Flynn rather than Walter Jnr, in disgust with his father (presumably). But with so many other characters crowding into the scene, he was drowned out except for a scene in Season Four episode 10 when we watch the son's apprehensive, despairing look, his mobile face, as Walter talks about his own father.

Then there's Walt's pregnant wife (Anna Gunn). At first her writing ambitions sound like a desperate attempt to compete with her husband for family sympathy. But soon these efforts are abandoned as she returns to work and shows her management skills as a criminal bookkeeper. She ends up saving a hapless employer, and turning into a small-town American version of Lady Macbeth.

The victim as aggressor

Among these misfits, Walter seems the only sane character, but a victim who turns into rebel and persecutor. Gilligan saw Bryan Cranston at work on The X-File and considered him the only actor capable of carrying off the portrayal.

Tuco and his uncle were frightening enough. But we had to wait till Season Two to make the acquaintance of someone even more chilling: Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) the drug lord and owner of the Pollos Hermanos fast-food chain. Greg Metcalf, in one of the few studies to analyse thoroughly the changes that have taken place in television, describes Gus as Shakespearean.

For cold realism Cranston had competition in Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrentraut, the hitman for Fring. A cold realist who manages to remain sympathetic he also appears in the sequel prequel Better Call Saul.

The entry of Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman, the sleazy lawyer in episode 8 of season 2 (Gilligan has a good ear for ironic names, and this turns out, of course, not to be his real one), lifted the series into a wildly optimistic phase, making Saul so popular it was announced he was being given his own show.

The pink teddy bear

Season Two also introduced the pink teddy bear in the Whites' swimming pool, apparently a homage the red-coated Jewish girl in Schindler's List, though you have to wait till episode 13 for the explanation, when we learn that Walt was indirectly responsible for an aircraft crash from which the teddy bear fell into the water.

The chain of circumstances which lead from Walt's behaviour to the crash provides one of the most powerful statements against the drug culture, in the same way that America's high crime rate can be linked to the criminalization of drug taking, or depressed Marie is revealed in Season One's seventh episode as a shoplifter.

Crime and disaster spring out of social conditions in this series in a direct fashion we have not seen since The Wire. But in contrast to the cop series, Breaking bad does not seem to see a way for American society to recognize those conditions, let alone change them.

Many circles of hell

The world Gilligan's characters inhabit include a snitch who demands payment in Skymall gadgets (season 2 episode 7); the drug dealers turn up for counselling in order to sell to the other reformed addicts; and Walt finds himself plotting to have Jesse arrested in order to stop the young man going after the gang who had ordered the murder of the 10-year-old brother of his girl friend because the boy would no longer be part of their business.

In another superb piece of dialogue, in episode four of Season Four, written by Moira Walley-Beckett, we hear Walter declare to his wife: "I'm sorry. I am sorry that I put you through all this." But he is just rehearsing a line for his brother and sister-in-law. As she realizes when he asks: "How does that sound? Two sorries." The moral quagmire just gets thicker and thicker.

In contemporary television, almost every series will have its homages to other dramas. In keeping with modish sensibilities that require a nod and a wink to the claims of irony, it even had a Sopranos style ambiguous ending.

But Season Three episode 10 (Fly) had already given us Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, though with Vladimir and Estragon rather than (as we may have previously thought) Lucky and Pozzo in Walt and Jesse. Walt's pursuit of the fly in the lab turns into a meditation on madness, cancer and the time when you should die: "You want to be missed."

Avoiding bravura

The high-school gym episode of Season Three also had echoes of No Country for Old Men. But the examples of bravura cinematography were so rare (thank goodness) that it was noticeable in Season Three when we saw a boy drinking from a fountain, which was then revealed his mother and aunt as he turned, and Walter came in from the back. In most cases, the filming was carefully related to the emotions rather than a demonstration of virtuosity.

Scattered throughout the series we have scenes and lines that drive home the distortion that drugs bring into people's lives. Jesse speaks of giving up drugs: "I spend so much energy fighting the urge not to use and I feel like crap." He gets to know a neighbour who turns out to be a potential client. His pals ask: "You and that girl, you do the deed yet?" "What?" "You know, sell to her." He defends his drug manufacturing: ""I didn't steal it. it doesn't belong to anyone else. I earned it."

A poisoned chocolate box of delights

In Season One, Jesse's return to his family home and failure to reconnect with his parents is a self-contained drama that Gilligan wisely gives its separate space, touching and exemplary in its own right. And each season had its special delights: Jessica Hecht and Adam Godley as Gretchen and Elliot Schwartz, Walt's former partners in Gray Matter, Krysten Ritter as Jane Margolis, Jesse's love interest, David Costabile as Gale Boetticher, a rival chemist to Walter, Laura Fraser as Lydia Rodarte-Quayle, the nervous wouldbe drug queen, Jesse Plemons as Todd Alquist, a later associate of Walt and Jesse, and Lavell Crawford as Huell Babineaux, Saul's lackadaisical henchman.

The list just goes on and on. Was there ever a series with so many fully formed characters pushing for center-stage?

Skewering the American dream

Breaking Bad's commentary on American values is hard to resist. Which leads, if not naturally then inevitably, to another set of quotes from individual scenes:

In Season Four episode six we are told: "Someone has to protect this family from the man who protects this family" (the truth behind The Sopranos).

The story of the red car bought for Walt Jnr's 16th birthday: pleasures must not be deferred in American series — that is the secret of their appeal to infantilized, commoditized Americans. The car costs $52,000 but Walter's comment from his lawyer's sofa is: "I don't need to hear the blow by blow."

We recognize the prevalence in addiction groups and psychiatrists in American dramas post-1990 of the soliloquy, the "need" to confess. "We're not here to sit in judgement," says the group leader. "Why not?" asks Jesse.

"It's not wrong to want it [money]" we are told in Season Five.

No politics, please

Vince Gilligan, in Jim Rash's The Writers' Room (Sundance 2013), has denied any political intent in creating the series (at about 16:50 minutes in). But it is hard not to read such sentences back out to the real world from the fiction.

More than most, this series ask us to do the opposite, too: read back our experience of the real world into our interpretation of what is going on before us onscreen.

In The Writers' Room Cranston describes Breaking Bad as "unprecedented" (06:00+). "To change a character in a television series has never happened before," he remarks (06:15), a point made also by Greg Metcalf, who says it offers "a more disturbing and complicated version of evil than has been considered on television".

The Albuquerque story

Gilligan jokes that Breaking Bad contained "all the ingredients of failure". Several networks turned it down until AMC, about to launch Mad Men, showed interest in the first series.

At the request of Sony, which pointed out that it would earn them a 25% State rebate, the story was switched to New Mexico from Southern California. Albuquerque, the urban centre surrounded by desert, became a character in the series, the writers noted, perhaps unwittingly recalling Baudrillard's description in America of the desert as being the quintessential U.S. landscape to set against the "desert-like banality" of the city.

No country for young men

Season three gave us moments of Grand Guignol reminiscent of No Country for Old Men and a dialogue on Georgia O'Keefe's continual repainting of the image of the door to her home (episode 11), leading to an explanation of why Jesse had kept his girlfriend Jane's lipstick-stained cigarette stub in his car's ash tray after her death.

Season Five brings in the German connection and the hilariously evil/nervous woman company executive (the Scottish actress Laura Fraser). In this season we realized that Skinny Pete (Charles Baker) is a classical musician by avocation.

in another episode (5:2 Madrigal), written by Vince Gilligan, we can appreciate the poetry of technology in a scene of drug production that has the same lyricism and vagueness through excessive detail as advertising.

Waking fantasies

Despite all this, perhaps it should be no surprise that the concluding episode delivered a series of fantasies to its faithful audiences rather than open up new vistas, the hallmark of its previous seasons.

Never less than impeccably produced and acted, the final episode nevertheless delivered punishments on the wicked like a Biblical angel. No wonder Walter ended spreadeagled like a Christ (or da Vinci man) with a wound in his side: a shot from above that only the viewer (not the police) were able to appreciate.

Nevertheless, we had the villain delay shooting Walter so that Jesse could be hauled up from his underground Hell and be saved by his nemesis when the baddies are wiped out.

Then Jesse refused to shoot Walter, once he had forced W. to beg him.

Money is our deus ex machina

Walter is even able to provide for his children in an irrevocable trust fund through a creaky manoeuvre that reeks of fantasy (money is the new supernatural power in this society).

Meanwhile, he even disposes of the evil go-between and allows Jesse to strangle his tormentor.

Walter even admits that his criminal behaviour was not just for his family but for himself: "I liked it. I was good at it."

He wasn't. He spent most time in slavery to a gangster working in a lab and had to kill several people to cover his tracks as well as leading to the murder of his brother-in-law.

But no-one was around to challenge him except his wife, and she was to look tenderly at him while he caressed their baby (pure fantasy).

Jesse even got to drive away yelling in glee at his freedom.

What really happened was...

Without ever signalling itself as pastiche, episode 16 of the final season mopped up loose ends in a parody of careless plotting.

What if Gilligan had offered us something more likely? — that Walter died in cold New England and never returned, that his wife and children were kept in the penury and depression we observed and they hated him, that Hank's body was never found, that Jesse remained chained underground to manufacture metamphetine for the brutal gang, and that nervous Nellie continued to thrive with the drug the young man produced.

Then Breaking Bad would have appeared like a parable of life after the crash of 2007-9 in America: the millions who lost their homes and slaved on while the rich and brutal prosper and continue to feed the market with lies about investment.

And in neither case did any angel intervene to give us relief from our frustrations or punish the wicked, let alone offer a spectacle we could celebrate or feel vindicated in self-destruction.


* 'Breaking bad', according to wikipedia, is a Southern term for 'raising hell'.